What VK Murthy was to Guru Dutt, Subarta Mitra to Satyajit Ray, Mankand Ravi Verma to Adoor Gopalakrishan, KK Mahajhan was to the Indian New Wave. There never was, and there never will be an iconoclast like him again in Indian Cinema. He smoked, he drank, he laughed, he joked, and he ‘created’ images out of thin air; breaking barriers of light, texture, shadow to form an everlasting bonding. To watch the camera sway and form distinct patterns in Kumar Shahani documentary ‘ The Bamboo Flute’ one cannot help, but think, and think deeply, not only regarding the layers of meaning woven in Shah ani's mise-en-scene, but the dense layers of textures and colors of green, reds and blue forming the basic substance and creating the organic growth in the film. When I asked Kumar Shahani regarding his collaboration with KK Mahajan, he simply smiled, and the smile meant more than any words could have expressed. After all, they had shared a bond from their years at FTII, Pune to their final short video film on the painter Akbar Padamese exhibition. Alok Upadhyay (FTII batch of 1984) recalls his experience on the sets of Kumar Shahani:
In the years that I worked with Mahajan Saab, the films that we did for Kumar Shahani and Mrinal Sen were most rewarding. The style of work on these productions was such that it reflected the trust that these directors had in Mahajan Saab, and this sort of trust he passed on to those working with him.
I remember soon after joining Mahajan Saab, we were shooting with Kumar Shahani near Delhi and the whole day went by without a word being spoken between them. Strange as it may sound (or the lack of sound), work went on fine, and I thought to myself,"Is this any way to work?" I now look back on those days and understand that this sort of trust between a director and cinematographer is unique and today probably a rarity if not an extinct species.
His cinematography epitomized the color and vibrancy of the films of the 60s and 70s in Indian Cinema. KK Mahajan walked hand in hand with the likes of Mirnal Sen, Kumar Shahini, Basu Chatterjee, Mani Kaul, Subhash Ghai, and several mainstream directors to create a world of his own. Even when not working with the directors of the ‘New Wave’ his mark and sensibilities could be felt in the commercial works he had done. It was his attitude, courage and zeal to come in direct confrontation with nature to create enduring images that prompted Mirnal Sen to ask him to shoot Bhvan Shome. It is this very zeal and courage Mirnal Sen wrote about in his article for the NFDC:
That was the time when I had accidentally run into a minor work by K.K. Mahajan—a diploma film of the Institute directed by his batch-mate Kumar Shahani, and photographed by K.K. I saw the class-room exercise and loved it immediately. I loved it for a different reason…for venturing to shoot in adverse conditions. Two years later, in 1968, I got a loan from the then Film Finance Corporation, and happily there were no strings attached. I formed a team, almost all having very little or nothing of “commercial” content and having an abundant measure of verve and courage.
I asked K.K. if he would do the photography as a sort of love’s labour, so to say. K.K. readily agreed and perhaps beamed inwardly. That was the beginning of a journey, a long one, which perhaps in just two cases, that too under unforeseen circumstances, never broke. K.K. and I, we worked together, starting from BHUVAN SHOME and continued unabated, once a year, in various places, various languages, and interestingly, in diverse situations. In the process, I learnt a lot and so, I believe, did he and we have been growing together steadily, happily, clumsily. True, we had initial problems to understand each other but neither he nor I took unreasonable time to get to know ourselves and then coming out of one film and walking into another, year after year, we became, as was expected, almost one inseparable entity.
KK, as he was fondly called, won four National Awards, and was later bestowed with more during his lifetime; but for him, it was his work with the directors of the ‘ New Wave’ that he most cherished, whereupon, there was an excitement and chance of discovering possibilities beyond the fixated and formula of Bollywood. Mani Kaul’s Uski Roti would not have the same effect, if it was not for the exploration of the ‘ wide’ and ‘ telephoto’ lens to heighten and widen the psychological perception of the characters in the space, and even, allow the feeling of ‘ waiting’ and ‘ emptiness’ seep beyond the parameters of filmic space and time. It is his cinematography which gave the image its required tension, just as it brought in the visceral yet a calm imagery to Bhuvan Shome. KK Mahajan went on the shot more than 18 features of Mirnal Sen, and hence, gave as basic unity in terms of colors, lighting and technique to his films. So if one looks closely, one can identify with the lighting pattern and a certain visual flow in his works for Mirnal Sen,especially in the lighting for all his Black&White films, since Mirnal Sen movies has this uncanny ability to infuse a certain Marxist idiom and lingo that made his movies flow like a docu-drama, and it's with the help of Mahajan's minute ability to mould those characters and settings into a very realistic space that allowed most of his films to seem raw, crude, yet poetic.So,whether it was Bhuvan Shome in Gujarat or Interview in Calcutta, Mahjan brought out the energy of the space, and captured the tension needed to be conveyed between the character and surrounding and reflected to us.
But the greatness of KK Mahajan simply does not stop here. He went on the shot all of Kumar Shahani films, and documentaries with Shyam Benegal, BD Garga and others. Each time he worked with a new director he made sure it was the impression of the director that he helped ‘mould’ and bring the image into vision. Today one feels handicapped and helpless when watching a Bollywood film shot on ‘Cinemascope’ because the space that the lens allows a director or cinematographer to work together to fill and use is simply wasted. Looking back, at the cinematography of VK Murthy, in Kagez ke Phool and KK Mahajan for Kumar Shahini’s Tarang the power and degree of mise-en-scene of the directors achieve its desired status simply because these two great cinematographers of Indian Cinema helped them in guiding the refraction and reflection into images that is projected. 24fps. In the case of Guru Dutt it allowed him to explore his social romanticism further, and Shahani the breakdown of the social-class he set out to portray. KK Mahajan and Kumar Shahani had been working together from Shahani's Diploma film ' The Glass Pane' down to his very last work. The traditional and folks roots of Shahini mise-en-scene and his inclusion of the epic form into his cinematic vision, only achieved its degrees of austerity because of the photography of KK Mahajan. His photography brought forth the lush colors and energy expressed through Shahani's representation of the folk art, panting and music, and it gave him the freedom to create a synesthetic image to arouse question and motifs, while creating a dense textured and layered work.
The gift in KK Mahajan cinematic excellence lay in his ability to bring out results from the needed resources he had, because most of the films he ever worked had a shoestring budget, and equipments which simply functioned. Nothing hi-tech. Unlike the class of equipment a production boosts of today and it’s supernatural DI effects flowing with their superhuman editing jargons. But such images and sounds have lost any form of meaning or bonding. It simply exist in vacuum. To 'retell' the same story again and again. But there still is an everlasting freshness in the film shot under the guidance of KK Mahajan, whether it is a documentary, short films or features- commercial or art. The prints may have scratches, become dark, even lost its sharpness. Yet, the movies he shot still brings in something ‘ new’ to behold and, to 'witness,' something that our naked eye and perception cannot capture and see everyday. It’s this ability of great cinematographers that have allowed the images in films to withstand the taste of time. His contribution to the growth of Indian Cinema cannot be forgotten, he worked towards sharpening the lines, infusing the color and creating a canvas unique for every director he worked with. He broke down each image, and created a flux to reclaim the honor of moving back to zero to create unique properties for each film he worked. Today, in the age of HI-tech equipments, new DI effects, and the bombarded of images through photos, television and cinema one is lost in determining the truth from fiction, because the image has lost its innocence, and cinema its ability to evoke truth.
pic-1 KK Mahajan
pic-2 Mirnal Sen and KK Mahajan
pic -3 Kasba(still)1990, Kumar Shahani/ KK Mahjan